September 7, 2001

Meharry-Vanderbilt team receives $750,000 to train genetic scientists

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Meharry’s Shirley Russell, Ph.D., and Vanderbilt’s Dr. John Phillips are coordinating the grant to train genetic scientists. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Meharry-Vanderbilt team receives $750,000 to train genetic scientists

These days the pace of genetic discovery is almost stupefying. In classrooms, students struggle to comprehend the complex ideas. Patients, newly diagnosed, strain for news of promising treatments. The rest of us grapple with how controversial issues such as stem cell research and cloning might affect our own lives. Yet there is a feeling of optimism, a sense that one day these concepts might prove pivotal in the well-being of someone close to us.

A group of researchers at Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, recognizing that the education of genetic scientists must change to meet the challenges of the rapidly expanding field, has been awarded $750,000 to fund an innovative trans-institutional genetics research training program. The award, from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, will support two years of graduate study for each of eight students.

“The partnership will draw upon the unique strengths of both institutions to prepare emerging scientists to conduct research in an ethically and culturally sensitive manner, emphasizing the social implications of genetic research,” said Dr. John A. Phillips, III, David T. Karzon chair in Pediatrics and professor of Biochemistry and Medicine at Vanderbilt, and director of the training program.

Both Meharry and Vanderbilt have well-established research and clinical programs in genetics, with Meharry giving particular attention to the health concerns of minorities and the disadvantaged. Representatives from each institution serve on the state Genetics Advisory Committee. Of note, Meharry is nationally recognized for the high number of African-American research scientists and educators that it produces.

“The next generation of genetic scientists must be equipped not only to do research, but also to educate the public and to train other trainers,” said Shirley B. Russell, Ph.D., professor and chair of Microbiology at Meharry and co-director of the program. “We need good teachers of genetics, at all levels.”

Genetic investigators from each institution will be instructors. Teaching cores have been established at Meharry and Vanderbilt. Students, to be recruited by both institutions, will take classes and be involved in research at the partner institution. Dissertation research may be done on either campus, though thesis committees will be blended. Both students and faculty will participate in the annual Meharry-Vanderbilt Genetics Symposium.

The training will place special emphasis on studying variation in the distribution of genetic diseases among ethnic populations.

Certain genetic diseases occur more frequently in a particular population; for example, sickle cell anemia occurs predominantly in those of African or Mediterranean descent. Other disorders, such as hypertension, occur widely but the disease is thought to have a different genetic basis from one ethnic group to another.

In light of such genetic nuance, scientists might, for example, develop therapeutic treatments tailored to ethnicity. An increased sensitivity to variation and disproportionate rates of disease in minority populations will help to ensure that advances in genetics will be available to more members of society.

“This cross-pollination between institutions provides a unique opportunity to strengthen ongoing research programs at Meharry and to raise the consciousness of Vanderbilt students regarding diseases that affect primarily minority populations,” said George C. Hill, Ph.D., vice president for Sponsored Research at Meharry.

The program will also stress the social, ethical, and political implications of genetic discoveries. How these issues impact the design of genetic research projects, and how the use of research findings affects social interaction and public policy, will be explored in depth. The goal is to graduate skilled researchers who are also prepared to engage in public debate.

Individual interactions between genetic researchers at Meharry and Vanderbilt have been ongoing since the mid-80s, including crossover teaching and mentoring. Faculty members from both medical centers hold adjunct appointments at the other institution. For the last several years, investigators have developed increasingly productive research collaborations. This training program, however, represents the first formalized mechanism for bringing faculty and students from the two institutions together.

Phillips and Russell smile when skeptical reviewers say the idea sounds good on paper, but question if the relationship is real.

“We tried very hard [in our proposal] to convey what we thought was obvious,” Russell said. “Our interactions complement each other, but we don’t give up our individual strengths and goals. Our mutual independence is maintained.”

“This alliance is particularly strong,” Phillips concurred. “The people involved seem truly interested in each other and the issues at hand. The grant is symbolic – the relationship goes far beyond the grant.”

Other faculty serving on the advisory board for the program include: Robert Clark, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Behaviorial Sciences, and Scott M. Williams, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology, both from Meharry. Also, from Vanderbilt: Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, J.D., professor of Pediatrics and Law, Rosalind E. Franklin professor of Genetics and Health Policy, and fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Studies; Jonathan L. Haines, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and director of the Research Program on Genetics, Brain, and Behavioral Development at the Kennedy Center; and Dr. Marshall L. Summar, associate professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics.